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George Breed’s electrified guitar

 

On 2 September 1890 U.S. Navy officer George Breed (1864–1939) was granted a patent for a design for an electrified guitar (Method of and apparatus for producing musical sounds by electricity, patent no. 435,679); it appears to be the first application of electricity to a fretted string instrument.

Like the modern electric guitar and other similar instruments, Breed’s patent was based on a vibrating string in an electromagnetic field; but his design worked on very different musical and electrical principles (in particular the Lorentz force), resulting in a small but extremely heavy guitar with an unconventional playing technique that produced an exceptionally unusual and unguitarlike, continuously sustained sound.

Breed is now almost completely unknown as a musical instrument maker and designer; the significance of this instrument has largely remained underappreciated, and the circuitry unexamined.

This according to “George Breed and his electrified guitar of 1890” by Matthew Hill (The Galpin Society journal LXI [April 2008] pp. 193–203). Hill’s reconstruction of the instrument is documented here.

Related article: Ken Butler’s anxious objects

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Patent applications

Patent applications for new instruments—or for improvements to already existing ones—usually involve one or more technical drawings. These can be of historical interest for several reasons; for example, the article Piano wars: The legal machinations of London pianoforte makers, 1795–1806 by George S. Bozarth and Margaret Debenham (RMA research chronicle XLII, 45–108) makes use of original drawings and descriptions for patents by William Southwell (1794) and his son, William junior (1837), to reconstruct the issues and outcomes of legal actions involving many of England’s top piano manufacturers in the early nineteenth century.

Reproduced above is a page from Brian Hayden’s 1984 patent application for a new way of arranging the buttons on a concertina.

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